Hanukkah, the festival of lights, begins this week. It’s the time of year when Jewish families around the world gather by their menorahs, light the candles, and typically give gifts to each other for eight nights in a row. While multiple nights of gift-giving is something that every Jewish child will brag about to their non-Jewish schoolmates, there’s something more important to be celebrated at Hanukkah (family and friends, duh!) and what better way to do that than around the dinner table?
The question is, how do you keep dinners, which are usually traditional, exciting for multiple consecutive nights? It’s a challenge that even celebrated chefs can face in fine dining restaurants. There’s only so much brisket or potato latkes you can tolerate before you bellow an “oy vey.”
Recently, Micah Wexler, the owner of Wexler’s Deli at downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market, took a few minutes away from the busy counter to tell us what you can do to liven up dinner for the most festive holiday on the Jewish calendar.
Wexler, an L.A. born-and-raised chef who has always drawn inspiration from his Jewish heritage, kibitzed with us about Hanukkah dinner and how it can offer more than the same ol' brisket. He also shared a special recipe that you can make at home. But more on that after the jump:
SQUID INK (JARED COWAN): What are your memories of Hanukkah while growing up?
MICAH WEXLER: I grew up in a very Jewish house – conservative, Shabbat every Friday. All of the holidays were observed. It was a kosher house too, so when something like Hanukkah comes around, something of some sort is happening pretty much every night.
What are the traditional Hanukkah dishes?
Obviously latkes are ubiquitous. It’s funny because it’s such a simple thing. There are usually three to five ingredients, but within those three to five ingredients there are so many approaches and styles. Brisket is another one for sure. The jelly donuts – sufganiyot.
Did your family ever branch out and include non-traditional dishes in your Hanukkah meal?
On my mom’s side of the family, that grandmother was more adventurous in her cooking, [the dish] might not even be Jewish. She always used to make this marinated cucumber/vegetable salad, a pickled sort of thing. [My grandmother] would travel and she’d cook pasta because she went to Italy, or teriyaki because she went to Japan.
Would those international dishes be made on Hanukkah?
The holidays were usually pretty traditional, but there was always one curveball she would throw in.
Are there different takes on traditional Jewish dishes that you would suggest?
You can look to the other Jewish traditions. When it comes to the holidays I like traditional stuff. That’s my own personal thing, but that being said I think there are a lot of different ways to go. A lot of times when it comes to these holidays we tend to say the Ashkenazi traditions [those of Central and Eastern European countries] are first and the Sephardic [those of Spain, Portugal, the Middle East and Northern Africa] are second. Take something like gefilte fish – everybody knows the Ashkenazi style, but [the Sephardic] will have something almost like a loaf and it’s heavily spiced, it has tumeric, cumin, onions and all these kinds of things.
I was always really bored with brisket at the holidays. Your pomegranate brisket is an example of a twist on a traditional dish that can be served at the Hanukkah table. How did you come up with that?
I wanted to do a spin that was like I want that comforting, homey feeling that brisket gives you, but it’s also a little bit boring…It was fall bordering on winter, so pomegranates were in their prime to the tail end of their season. With pomegranates you get sweet, you get acid. When it gets reduced you have that nice sticky glaze, but it’s acidic also. [The brisket is] marinated in red wine and pomegranate juice for a day or two, brazed and then glazed, which is the part that every Ashkenazi, Jewish home cook misses with their brisket, which is just sort of this steamed piece of meat that’s sitting in liquid, which can be nice for a pot roast sort of thing. What makes the difference here is taking that liquid, reducing it down, and the last 45-minutes of the cooking you’re just spreading it over the top the whole time so it gets that really nice bark and almost sticky shellac on the outside of it.
Anytime I cook something that’s braised, I always want to have some element of freshness, brightness and acidity that makes you want to eat more of it so I make this pomegranate gremolata. Basically it’s pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, mint, parsley, some other stuff and that goes on top.
Are there dishes that aren’t typically seen at the Hanukkah table that should be there?
I think one thing that’s definitely missing from the Hanukkah table is [a] vegetable. You got your brisket, you got your latkes with sour cream and apple sauce. A lot of people are cooking dried fruit kind of things like tsimmes, and all of that tends to get real heavy. You want balance in your meal, always. I think anything that employed vegetables being charred, being roasted or wood-roasted, or even throwing them in the fireplace in a little foil packet, those kinds of things would be something that would be really, really nice. Marinated vegetables, pickled things. That’s how I’m always thinking – What’s the main event here? It’s the brisket and the latkes. Ok, so now what can I bring to that to balance all those things out?
Is there anything people can do to liven up their potato latkes?
More effort should go into the choice of potato. Most cooks use Idahos because that’s what they’re familiar with. I like Yukons. Yukons are readily available and nice and creamy. You want something that’s going to get creamy. It’s not hash browns…If you really want to get into it, if you want to go to the farmers market, potatoes like Kennebec and Maris Piper, and that kind of stuff, those are great potatoes to use for latkes. Those really creamy, yellow, golden potatoes work really well.
There are a million ways you can get creative. You can use different vegetables. You always see the recipes out there for the sweet potato latkes or the zucchini ones. I used to do an hors d’oeuvre when I did private parties that was a zucchini, feta, and lamb latke that was delicious. There are a lot of people who would come to your house and might be offended like, “Where’s my latke,” but it was really good. Dill yogurt on top; they were delicious. It was super simple to make. If you suspend the rules a little bit and think of a latke as a fritter, there are a lot of directions you can go. You can do some butternut squash, any sort of winter squash, shredded or ground with dates, some cumin in there, now you’ve got that kind of latke.
Kids usually enjoy making latkes, but is there something else that parents can have their kids make at Hanukkah? A dessert perhaps?
We used to always make these marshmallows. You take a piece of Red Vines licorice cut like [an inch and a half] long, stick it in the top of the marshmallow, make some icing, and you take a chocolate Kiss, put a little icing on the bottom of the marshmallow, stick the chocolate Kiss to it, so if you can imagine this now it looks just like a dreidel. Best thing ever. I used to love those things. I would eat one of those right now.
And now, for your pomegranate-glazed brisket recipe…
Pomegranate Glazed Brisket with Pomegranate and Pine Nut Gremolata
Recipe by Micah Wexler
1 5-pound brisket
4 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs thyme
4 cups pomegranate juice
3 ounces pine nuts, toasted
1 bunch parsley
3 ounces pomegranate seeds
3 cups red wine
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons mint
• Clean brisket of any silver skin or excess fat. Season brisket with salt and pepper and sear in a hot roasting pan until browned.
• Cut up the vegetables into large pieces and place around the brisket. Allow vegetable to cook for 3-5 minutes. Add all the wine and all but 1/4 cup of the pomegranate juice. Add bay and thyme, cover with aluminum and braise in a 350-degree oven for 3 1/2 hours or until tender.
• While brisket is cooking, combine chopped parsley, pine nuts, olive oil, lemon zest, mint, pomegranate seeds and remaining pomegranate juice and hold to the side.
• For the last half hour of cooking, remove aluminum from brisket and allow to brown while glazing with the juices every 5 minutes.
• When brisket is ready to be served, slice and place on a large platter. Spoon over the vegetables and pan juice and top with pomegranate and pine nut gremolata.
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